Like so many former industrial-dependent communities in New England, Torrington has struggled to find its identity in the modern world. That was especially true in 2016 when the city’s regional University of Connecticut campus closed due to declining enrollment, further stripping Torrington of jobs and vibrancy.
But what was then viewed as a devastating blow to the city might one day be considered the dawning of a new age of creativity. This past summer, Torrington’s Five Points Center for the Visual Arts closed a deal to buy the buildings formerly home to the UConn campus. The nonprofit arts group, which started in 2012 with a summertime gallery space, is in the process of transforming the property into a world-class arts center the likes of which have not been seen before in Northwest Connecticut.
The closest comparison is in North Adams, Massachusetts, where the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) took over long-shuttered factory buildings. That process involved major renovations, remediations and took 25 years. While Torrington shares similarities with that town in having industrial roots and trying to reinvent itself as an arts destination, the UConn campus buildings were well maintained and the hand-over was essentially turnkey. Still, full operation of the buildings, grounds and trails could take 10 years, although project leaders are hoping for completion well before that.
Judith McElhone, Five Points’ founder and executive director, says the nonprofit, which has two galleries in downtown Torrington and several multi-tiered arts initiatives, wasn’t looking to expand. But when the campus opportunity came to their attention in 2018, they jumped on it. “This came out of left field and it was so right to continue our mission to support artists and the community ... and to give artists the equipment and the facilities they need to experiment and make art and for community members to use that same equipment to take classes and learn about the arts with a hands-on opportunity,” she says. Aided by an anonymous donor, the organization bought the property, and though negotiations were a breeze, bureaucracy drew the process out over two years.
While Five Points will maintain its downtown gallery spaces (a permanent one in a historic building and a pop-up gallery), the new campus, set on 90 acres with a 30,000-square-foot building, will be home to a multi-level visual arts center and sculpture park. Education and supporting the work of artists will be a key function. Once up to capacity, the center is projected to create 20 new full-time positions and 15 part-time teaching and staff positions.
Connecting emerging artists with established professional artists will be a crucial part of the new center, namely through the Lynchpin Program, a think tank through which artists can share ideas and create art. A major focus will be art addressing planet sustainability and the environment. “The vision for this program is that we connect these emerging artists that are so beautifully educated and so smart with established artists so they can work together to experiment, to explore and to make art that is yet to be imagined,” McElhone says. “Artists always lead the way, and when you bring artists and scientists together and emerging artists with established artists — there is no end to the possibilities.”
Among the ways Five Points supports artists is through its LaunchPad partnership with the University of Hartford, which allows graduates to apply for shared studio space above the Torrington gallery at $65 a month, including utilities. Artists can also exhibit in the pop-up gallery for $300 for two weeks. (Five Points does not take any commission on art sales.)
The campus opening will be gradual. After some renovations, the main building will house several fully equipped artists’ workspaces and labs for painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, labs for digital art and photography, as well as a courtyard sensory garden. The existing 245-seat auditorium and commercial kitchen are well suited for large indoor gatherings and the 90-acre art park will highlight sculptures created by regional, national and international artists. Plein-air painting, drawing marathons, concerts and outdoor movies, yoga classes and other outdoor activities are also in the works.
McElhone hopes that, pandemic willing, the first public program will take place on campus this fall. Outdoors, drive-in movies show on Saturday nights (torringtondrivein.com), yoga classes have been held, and sculptures have been installed. “In response to the impact of COVID-19, the immediate goal is to create a safe, welcoming outdoor space for our community of artists, friends, neighbors and visitors,” she says. “Plein-air painting, drawing marathons, concerts and outdoor movies can provide much-needed sanctuaries for healing and creating. Seldom has the world needed these collaborations more than today.”